To answer this question, you first need to understand your own family history along with your other risk factors for developing heart disease.
How do I know if I have a family history of heart and vascular disease?
Start by asking your immediate family members (brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents) if they have been diagnosed with heart disease or had a heart attack or stroke, and how old they were when they developed these diseases.
You have a strong family history if one of your immediate family members had a heart attack, stroke or was diagnosed with heart disease before age 60. This means your chance of developing heart disease is higher than normal. (This is important information to share with your doctor.) Genes may increase your risk, but they do not have to be your fate.
Family history gives you glimpse at your genetics and the environment that influences your lifestyle choices. Many of your lifestyle behaviors are learned from the family and community you grew up in. You can’t change your genetics, but you have remarkably effective ways to lower your risk. Your choices matter. As much as 80% of heart disease is preventable.
What can I change to reduce my risk of heart and vascular disease?
The environment where you grew up, and currently live, impacts your food preferences, how active you are, and if you smoke or not. You likely have some healthy habits and some not so healthy ones. You have many opportunities to make healthy choices and lower you risk.
Get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity, or a combination of both, spread throughout the week. Muscle-strengthening 2 or more days a week that work major muscle groups is also recommended.
Running, along with other types of physical activity, improves heart health and lowers risk. A large 15-year study with more than 55,000 adult participants found that runners were 45% less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than non-runners and had a 30% lower risk of death. Runners in the study outlived non-runners by 3 years on average.
However, research has also shown that extreme training and long-distance events may have the opposite impact for some people, causing damage to the heart and heart rhythm problems. If you consistently run long distances, you will want to talk to your doctor, especially if you feel any heart palpitations or have a history of arrhythmia.
Start by eating more whole, unprocessed foods with one or no more than a few ingredients. They are an excellent source of energy. Eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day provides a wide range of nutrients essential for good health. Eat a healthy breakfast, increase plant-based foods, choose healthy fats, and avoid added sugars. For more information, go to Heart Healthy Nutrition for Runners.
Maintain a healthy body weight
Runners move most efficiently at a healthy body weight and body-fat percentage. If you are overweight, just a small amount of weight loss (between 5% and 10% of your current weight) can strengthen your heart and improve performance.
Don’t smoke or use tobacco
If you are a smoker, quitting is the single best thing you can do to improve your health and performance. Your lungs and heart, as well as muscles, can suffer serious consequences when you smoke. Nicotine increases heart rate and blood pressure while interfering with blood vessel regulation and lung function. Smoking leads to less oxygen reaching the muscles. After smoking a cigarette, this oxygen transport is altered for 24 hours. For all these reasons, smoking and running don’t mix.
Know your numbers
Manage your blood pressure (ideally <120/80), blood glucose (fasting <100 mg/dl) and cholesterol (HDL or “good” cholesterol > 60 mg/dl and LDL “bad” cholesterol <100 mg/dl). If these numbers are not at these recommended levels, talk to your doctor about how to get them into a healthy range.
Talk to your doctor regularly
Discuss your personal risk factors for heart disease, including your age, family history, race, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and smoking history with your doctor. Ask your doctor to calculate your risk level. Based on your overall risk of heart disease, your doctor may recommend preventive medications, along with lifestyle behaviors, to lower your risk.
So back to the question, “Can I outrun a family history of heart disease?” Having a family history does not mean getting heart disease is inevitable but does make it more likely. Four studies involving over 55,500 participants showed that genetics and lifestyle factors were independently associated with developing heart disease. This means genetics remains a factor even if healthy lifestyle behaviors are adopted. They also found that those with high genetic risk had 46% lower risk of developing heart disease when they engaged in at least 3 out of 4 healthy lifestyle behaviors (no smoking, no obesity, regular physical activity and a healthy diet).
The good news is that there is much you can do to lower your chances of developing heart and vascular disease. You can focus on living a healthy life and taking care of your body, and you can largely counteract your genetics.
Now the question changes to, “What can I do to lower my risk even with a family history?” Running lowers your risk, so you already have a running start at preventing heart and vascular disease! What else can you do to take care of your heart health and improve your performance?